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Studies framing “belonging” as a key focus and a central concept of research have increased significantly in the 2000s. This article explores the dimensions of belonging as a scholarly concept. The investigation is based on a qualitative content analysis of articles published in academic journals covering a large number of different disciplines. The article poses and answers the following research questions: How is belonging understood and used in contemporary research? What added value does the concept bring to scholarly discussions? In the analysis, five topoi of conceptualizing belonging – spatiality, intersectionality, multiplicity, materiality, and non-belonging – were identified. After introducing the topoi, the article explores their cross-cutting dimensions, such as the emphasis on the political, emotional, and affective dimensions of belonging, and discusses key observations made from the data, such as the substantial proportion of research on minorities and “vulnerable” people. The analysis of the data suggests that by choosing to use the concept of belonging, scholars seek to emphasize the fluid, unfixed, and processual nature of diverse social and spatial attachments.
Fluidity and flexibility of
‘belonging’’: Uses of the
concept in contemporary
Tuuli La
Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyva
¨, Finland
Tuija Saresma
Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyva
¨, Finland
Kaisa Hiltunen
Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyva
¨, Finland
Saara Ja
Department of Languages, University of Jyva
¨, Finland
Nina Sa
Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyva
¨, Finland
Antti Vallius
Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyva
¨, Finland
Kaisa Ahvenja
Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyva
¨, Finland
Studies framing ‘‘belonging’’ as a key focus and a central concept of research have increased
significantly in the 2000s. This article explores the dimensions of belonging as a scholarly
concept. The investigation is based on a qualitative content analysis of articles published in
academic journals covering a large number of different disciplines. The article poses and
answers the following research questions: How is belonging understood and used in con-
temporary research? What added value does the concept bring to scholarly discussions? In
the analysis, five topoi of conceptualizing belonging – spatiality, intersectionality, multi-
plicity, materiality, and non-belonging – were identified. After introducing the topoi, the
Corresponding Author:
Tuuli La
¨ki, Department of Art and Culture Studies, P.O. Box 35, 40014 University of Jyva
¨, Jyva
¨, Finland.
Acta Sociologica
2016, Vol. 59(3) 233–247
ªThe Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0001699316633099
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article explores their cross-cutting dimensions, such as the emphasis on the political,
emotional, and affective dimensions of belonging, and discusses key observations made from
the data, such as the substantial proportion of research on minorities and ‘‘vulnerable’’
people. The analysis of the data suggests that by choosing to use the concept of belonging,
scholars seek to emphasize the fluid, unfixed, and processual nature of diverse social and
spatial attachments.
Belonging, intersectionality, materiality, non-belonging, emotional attachment, politics of
belonging, spatiality, vulnerability
It seems that in recent scholarship, the concept of belonging has emerged alongside, and partly
replaced or challenged, the concept of identity. During the past decades, researchers involved in the
critical academic disciplines of ethnic (e.g. Said, 1985; Scott, 1995), gender and queer (e.g. Bell 2007,
Butler, 1990; Warner, 1999), disability (e.g. McRuer, 2006), and postcolonial studies (e.g. Brah, 1996;
Hall, 2000) have developed new theoretical and conceptual approaches to studying identity. Simul-
taneously, identity formations and processes of identification have been explored using diverse,
parallel, and sometimes overlapping conceptualizations such as self-constitution, place-attachment,
displacement, and othering. In general, critical theories have broadened academic discussion on
identity by highlighting identification as an ongoing process rather than identity as a stable result
of finite processes (Bauman, 1992; Butler, 1990; Hall, 2000; Scott, 1995; Woodward, 1997).
Despite the efforts to conceptualize identity as a multilayered and fluid process, some scholars have
argued that the concept has lost its analytic power. For example, Probyn (1996: 5) notes that there are
experiences and positions that go beyond what the concept of identity can capture. For her, ‘‘identity has
become a set of implacable statements that suppress, at times, questions about what identity really is for’
(Probyn, 1996: 9). Instead, she suggests, the concept of belonging:
...captures more accurately the desire for some sort of attachment, be it to other people, places, or modes of
being, and the ways in which individuals and groups are caught within wanting to belong, wanting to become,
a process that is fuelled by yearning rather than the positing of identity as a stable state. (Probyn, 1996: 19)
Indeed, an increasing number of scholars have addressed the questions of diverse forms of
‘attachments’’ or ‘‘identifications’’ with an alternative conceptualization: ‘‘belonging’’ has been
applied as a theoretical and analytical tool in the investigation of various forms of social interaction
and subjective experiences. The concept of belonging has been used to explore and make sense of a
wide range of phenomena that scholars have found difficult to address using the concept of
Like identity, belonging has been extensively discussed in various disciplines. While there is an ever-
growing body of literature on belonging, several scholars (Anthias, 2006: 19; Antonsich, 2010: 644;
Crowley, 1999: 17; Mahar et al., 2012: 1031; Mee and Wright, 2009: 774) have noted that the concept
itself is vaguely defined and ill-theorized. Instead, it is often taken for granted and regarded as self-
explanatory. Thus, the ambiguous concept needs further clarification and calls for a detailed examination
of its explanatory power in making sense of diverse social phenomena.
This article explores the dimensions of belonging as a scholarly concept in contemporary research.
The examination is based on a cross-sectional empirical analysis of peer-reviewed articles published
in scholarly journals covering a large number of different disciplines. Using qualitative content
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analysis, the article seeks to answer the following questions: How is belonging understood and used
in contemporary research? What theoretical frameworks are applied in making sense of the concept?
What added value does the concept bring to scholarly discussions? The article begins with a descrip-
tionofthedataandmethodsandproceedstoidentification of the main topoi of conceptualizing
belonging in the data. After exploring cross-cutting dimensions and themes in the research on
belonging and bringing out key observations from the data, reasons for the upsurge of the concept
are discussed. Finally, the article suggests a theoretical definition of the concept of belonging and
points out themes for further research.
Data and methods
The starting point of this study is the observation that the concept of belonging is used in contemporary
studies in various ways and is given diverse meanings. The aim is to find out how the concept is used and
understood and why it is used in such diverse ways. For the sake of valuing the diversity of the meanings
and uses of the concept, the research design is not based on any particular predefinition of the concept or
assumption of its ‘‘correct’’ use. In order to conduct a broad cross-sectional study on the meanings and
uses of the concept in contemporary research, the data gathering was focused on the most recent studies
with as broad, substantial content as possible. As the study was conducted in the beginning of 2015, the
year 2014 formed a relevant timeframe in regard to the aims of the cross-sectional study design. The aim
in the data selection was not to focus only on the publications that are the most cited. Following the ideas
of Soini and Birkeland (2014), it is not only the most cited scholars who contribute to framing and fixing
the meanings of concepts in academia; the notions on concepts are produced and established in a broader
Following the data selection principles of the study, a body of the most recent articles (year 2014)
discussing belonging was searched through the EBSCO Academic Search Elite (ASE), a scholarly
database characterized by a variety of journals ranging from sciences to humanities and covering
numerous subject areas. By searching the data through the EBSCO/ASE, it was possible to reach all
contemporary studies (by both the more- and less-referred-to scholars) in which ‘‘belonging’’ is used
as a central concept. The aim of the data selection was to include all the articles in which the authors
themselves defined ‘‘belonging’’ as a central concept by defining it as a keyword of their articles. In
gathering the data, therefore, scholarly peer-reviewed English-language articles published in 2014
with ‘‘belonging’’ as an author-supplied keyword were searched. With these criteria, EBSCO/ASE
gave 103 hits. A careful pre-examination of all the 103 articles was used to delimit the data to articles
that explicitly attempt to define the concept, discuss its meanings and uses in research, and/or
operationalize it as a means of analysis. The final corpus of analysis includes 67 articles published
in 50 journals representing various disciplines ranging from geography to psychology and from
ecology to gender studies.
The data were analyzed using qualitative content analysis (Miles and Huberman, 1994; Tesch, 1990),
mixing both its ‘‘conventional’’ and ‘‘directed’’ orientations (Hickey and Kipping, 1996; Hsieh and
Shannon, 2005). First, the contents of the discussions on belonging in the articles were coded with
thematic and theoretical keywords derived from the texts themselves. In addition to the text-based
starting point of the ‘‘conventional’’ content analysis, information from the authors’ previous study
on the concept of belonging (La¨hdesma¨ki et al., 2014) was utilized. The findings of the study directed
the analysis by providing initial coding keywords that were tested with the new data. In careful
re-reading of the data, the codes were merged into clusters. As a result of the analysis, divergent yet
interdependent topoi of conceptualizing and using the concept of belonging were identified. The relative
academic weight of the separate articles was not specified, but all papers were treated as equal when
sorted into different topoi. The analysis revealed several cross-cutting dimensions, themes, and theore-
tical approaches to the empirical research on belonging.
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Conceptualizing belonging in contemporary empirical research
Previous scholarly discussions on the concept of belonging include some efforts to map its diverse
meanings by theorizing the contents of the concept on a personal–public axis and/or in relation to the
aspects of place and politics. For example, Yuval-Davis (2006) makes a distinction between psycho-
logical and political belonging, while Antonsich (2010: 645) sees the discussions on belonging as
structured around two dimensions: ‘‘belonging as a personal, intimate feeling of being ‘at home’ in a
place (place-belongingness) and belonging as a discursive resource which constructs, claims, justi-
fies, or resists forms of socio-spatial inclusion/exclusion (politics of belonging).’’ Other scholars
(Baubo¨ck, 2005; Fenster, 2005; Jones and Krzyzanowski, 2008; Wodak and Krzyzanowski, 2007)
have distinguished between micro and macro structures of belonging and theorized how the idea of
belonging varies in different contexts: the concept has been understood as referring to public-oriented
official membership in a community, such as citizenship, or encompassing a private sentiment of
attachment and an informal subjective feeling of belonging. In addition to structuring the meanings of
the idea of belonging as personal–public or spatial–social relations, some scholars have mapped the
practices in and through which the belonging occurs. For example, Sicakkan and Lithman (2005: 27)
emphasize the ‘‘modes of belonging’’ when discussing the broad variety of attachments to places,
groups, and cultures.
Indeed, content analysis of the data brought out diverse modes of perceiving and making sense of the
idea of belonging: this diversity cannot be encapsulated to follow any two-dimensional polarities.
Instead, the diverse modes of making sense of belonging can be perceived as an interrelated network
or rhizome in which various theoretical points of view, concepts, and discussions intertwine. It thus
needs to be acknowledged that different research traditions have fed into the conceptual development of
the notion of belonging. The multiplicity of the ways the notion has been used and reconceptualized
within each scholarly field have made it the multidisciplinary and, at times, vague concept it is today.
However, the analysis shows that certain meanings and uses of the concept are more frequent and
dominant. In what follows, the recurrent modes of making sense of the concept are called topoi: the
uses and meanings of the concept of belonging can be structured as different topoi that include certain
kinds of theoretical and thematic emphases and focuses. Based on the analysis, five intersecting topoi –
spatiality, intersectionality, multiplicity, materiality, and non-belonging – were identified. In what
follows, these topoi are discussed separately for the sake of analytical clarity.
Spatiality of belonging
In the data, belonging is commonly explored in relation to geographical, social, and temporal spaces. As
a spatial concept, it is framed and discussed in close connection to the terms of place, space, and
boundaries. The spatial notions on belonging are often ‘‘multi-scalar’’ (Huot et al., 2014), including a
wide range of interdependent spatialities, such as homes, domestic spaces, neighborhoods, suburbs,
villages or urban spaces, regions, countries, and continents.
In the data, the analyses of spatial belonging are particularly prompted by migration, mobility, and
displacement of people and trans-local and national boundary-crossing processes. The majority of the
articles discussing the spatiality of belonging focus on ethnic, racial, or national minorities and/or
otherwise marginalized groups. Thus, it seems that the concept of belonging becomes topical in research
when the phenomena discussed with it are somehow precarious or problematic. The studies on migration
and mobility highlight belonging as consisting of various simultaneous place attachments: migration and
mobility may create ‘‘multi-sited’’ (Bennett, 2014; Marcu, 2014) spatial belonging, but also feelings of
‘in-betweenness’’ (Huot et al., 2014). The sense of belonging to a place is commonly approached in the
data as a temporal process that combines experiences from the past, notions of the present, and expec-
tations for the future. In addition, belonging to a place is often approached as a materialized and bodily
experience. The spatiality of belonging is, therefore, closely intertwined with temporality, materiality,
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and embodiment: space functions as a concrete frame connecting various other dimensions, aspects, and
relationalities of belonging.
The processes of ‘‘place-making’’ (Castillo, 2014) in the data commonly involve negotiation of the
emotional, verbalized, and bodily felt, affective dimensions of belonging. Belonging is associated with
the trope of home in the entrenched definition of belonging as ‘‘feeling at home’’ (Yuval-Davis, 2006:
197), and the trope is often replicated in the studies analyzed here. The idea of home refers to spaces of
familiarity, comfort, and emotional attachment, and feelings of security generate a sense of belonging in
an unfamiliar or unsecure environment. For example, the study by Marcu (2014) demonstrates how the
nostalgic and affective spaces of home shape migrant identification, and the study by Kobayashi (2014)
emphasizes how family ties are crucial in the formation of spatial belonging among migrants. Indeed, in
the studies analyzed here, social relations are inherently embedded in spatial belonging.
In the data, spatial belonging is mostly understood as part of the mundane everyday life that defines
who we are and how everyday life is lived. The interest in emotional attachments, however, also marks a
shift away from understanding belonging as intrinsically territorialized, local belonging to transnational
networks and relations. The desire to belong is not a fixed condition; motions, emotions and affects – we
use the latter interchangeably, following Ahmed (2004) – often generate differing articulations of
nostalgia, belonging, and attachment according to the given historical situation.
Intersectional and multiple belonging
The intertwining and negotiating of complex and interdependent social categories has been theorized
with the concept of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991; Ferree, 2011; McCall, 2005). It refers to the idea
of identities and belonging as multilayered and hybrid (Staunæs, 2003: 101) and as characterized by
constant spatial and temporal re-configurations (e.g. Fortier, 2001).
Although the concept of intersectionality is not commonly used in the data, many of the articles take
‘intersecting systems’’ (Bugg, 2014) as a starting point of research. The studies discuss, for example,
intersectional negotiations and collisions between gender, religion, and ethnicity (Bugg, 2014); indi-
genousness, class, gender, and caste (Gerharz, 2014); homosexuality and religion (Lustenberger, 2014);
whiteness and indigenousness (Sonn et al., 2014); and gender and disability (Pestka and Wendt, 2014).
The studies emphasizing the intersectional approach in the data indicate how belonging – however
individual the experience of it may be – always comprises social and political dimensions.
Closely related to the intersectionality of belonging, many of the articles explore how people simul-
taneously belong to various groups and places. In these views, belonging is never a coherent or auton-
omous experience, but a complex, multiple, and ‘‘partial, fragmented, or segmented’’ (Fridlund, 2014:
267) relationship. Notions of belonging as intersectional and multiple emphasize the temporal and
processual nature of the concept: belonging is perceived as situational, constructed across one’s lifespan,
and constantly being negotiated. As Cuervo and Wyn (2014: 912) state, belonging is ‘‘in a constant
process rather than a fixed property that becomes firm once it has been attained.’’ Because of its
intersecting and manifold character, belonging is even perceived as ‘‘a messy and uncertain process,
fractured along a range of axes and social fields’’ (Benson, 2014: 3110).
Materiality of belonging
The conjoining of belonging and materiality represents a move beyond the privileging of language in
accounts of social life and cultural phenomena. Before the material turn, with the notable exception of
the longstanding Marxist intellectual tradition, anthropology (e.g. Miller, 2001) and feminist con-
ceptualizations of body and nature (e.g. Alaimo and Hekman, 2008), social theorists mostly under-
stood social affairs as ‘‘composed of people and their relations,’’ thus ignoring materiality (Schatzki,
2010: 126).
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Many of the empirical studies on belonging in the data exemplify the dissolving of the nature–culture
dichotomy. Attention to physical reality, biosphere, and nature as essential dimensions of spatial and
cultural belonging provides new insights into the concept, as the studies do not view it merely as a social
relationship between people or people and abstract territories. Instead, belonging is constituted as an
intimate interaction with nature, a material relation to the physical environment and biosphere. For
example, Poe et al. (2014: 914) develop a framework of ‘‘relational ecologies of belonging’’ and argue
that determining ‘‘who and what belongs in a specific place is not a reflection of essential nature, but
rather arises from the interplay of human and more-than-human agencies with sociocultural, political,
and ecological contingencies.’’
In the data, the materiality of belonging refers first and foremost to the examination of people’s
contact with their physical surroundings and how such activities contribute to their sense of belonging to
a place or a community. While materialism is often related to social status, materialistic values, or
juxtaposed with immateriality, the studies dealing with the materiality of belonging examine the ways in
which all human beings in the world are entangled in and dependent on the materiality of the physical
world. The studies that take materiality as their starting point and deal with practices that involve space
and materiality often seek new ways to address communities and situations where socioeconomically
diverse groups, ‘‘rooted people,’’ and more recently arrived domestic and foreign-born residents of
mixed inheritance cohabit (contested) spaces. Taking materiality into account in the analyses of belong-
ing points both to the post-human, material conditioning and manifestations of subjectivity and belong-
ing as well as to the fact that agency is also constructed through material engagement in social practices.
This shift in focus toward materiality is reflected in the point made by Boccagni (2014: 289): ‘‘there is
a need to relocate belonging in something real.’’ The interest in the everyday negotiations of belonging
exemplifies how contemporary research on belonging focuses on materialized micro-levels of belonging
and its internal definitions rather than on formal definitions of belonging, such as citizenship. Indeed, the
studies focusing on the materiality of belonging in the data discuss, for example, an intimate relationship
between soil and settlers who put down their roots as a part of their place attachments (Mathiesen, 2014)
and the role of food, work, and clothing in the production of women’s ethnic and religious identity
(Bugg, 2014). The theme most frequently linked to the issues of materiality in the data is the migrants’
longing for home. In addition, a number of articles take houses – their construction, function, distribution
in geographical space, and the social capital involved – as sites where social and affective processes of
cohabiting are experienced and negotiated. Houses are thus proven to be much more than commodities:
they manifest the social capital of places.
Bennett (2014), through her phenomenological and critical analysis of the concept of belonging,
argues that the materiality of a place is a part of the embodied nature of being, and materiality can enable
a caring contact with past experiences, places, and generations. For her, it can produce an ethical way of
being in the world. As Killias (2014) points out, however, material practices can also be used to hinder
belonging and assimilation.
Gerharz (2014: 553–554) notes that ‘‘the advantage of the belonging concept is that it emphasizes the
relational dimensions of inclusion and exclusion.’’ Indeed, the idea of belonging and being included
comprises the possibility of being excluded. While the majority of the empirical studies in the data
emphasize inclusion and participation, exclusion and social deviance as such are discussed in only a few
articles. Discussion of the flip side of belonging, the idea of non-belonging, is rare. Non-belonging is
explicitly thematized in only one article, where the possibility of marginality is seen as a mode of
belonging that offers ‘‘a kind of comfort in not-being something’’ (Harris and Gandolfo, 2014). In
general, belonging is regarded as positive, and as something to be achieved. The concept of belonging
emphasizes the social aspects of living in the world with others and relating to others in a certain
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historical and cultural context. In this approach, belonging and non-belonging are structured and deter-
mined by diverse power hierarchies and hegemonies.
However, research on non-belonging could enable critical analysis of the complex dimensions of
belonging, such as its social and individual aspects, affective experiences, and structures of power. The
study of non-belonging allows dealing with ‘‘how identity politics and discourses of belonging and
exclusion are invoked as a means of access or a denial of rights to political power and economic
resources,’’ as Gressier (2014: 6) notes. The analyses of non-belonging as simultaneously embodied,
affectively felt, and socially constructed can be perceived as a means to overcome the traditional
distinction between belonging as either a psychological or political process. This is also where its
potential for future research lies.
Cross-cutting themes and theoretical approaches
The research on belonging comprises various cross-cutting dimensions, themes, and recurring theore-
tical approaches (cf. La¨hdesma¨ki et al., 2014). In the data analyzed here, the five different topoi are
connected with each other in a rhizome-like manner, albeit the concept of belonging is most clearly
intertwined with politics. Politics as the practice and theory of influencing other people (Mouffe, 2005),
personal choices, or collective public actions characterizes the notions of belonging in all of the iden-
tified topoi. In addition, the concept of the ‘‘politics of belonging,’’ formulated by Yuval-Davis (2006),
is recurrently used in the articles.
To Yuval-Davis, the politics of belonging relates to national belonging and the participatory politics
of citizenship, entitlement, and status, and this emphasis characterizes the empirical studies on the
politics of belonging in our data as well. Besides exploring the national-political level of belonging,
Yuval-Davis’s (2006) encourages researchers to analyze belonging on the level of ethical and political
values, the level of social locations, and the level of identifications and emotional attachments. The
studies in the data were sorted following these analytical levels. On the level of ethical and political
values, the studies particularly explore various problematic issues of citizenship and national belonging.
The main interests in the articles that discuss the ethical stand focus on, for example, ethical obligations
to fellow citizens (Patton, 2014) and the ethics of ‘‘welcoming’’ immigrants (Ehrkamp and Nagel, 2014)
in contemporary plural communities. On the level of social locations, the belonging of migrants to new
neighborhoods is the most commonly discussed topic (e.g. Ehrkamp and Nagel, 2014), but the studies on
the politics of belonging also focus on, for example, disabled students (e.g. Crouch et al., 2014), minority
children (e.g. Moore and McDowell, 2014), dual belonging to different religious traditions (e.g. Kang-
San, 2014), etc. Socially, these locations are often about displacement, such as leaving the country of
origin, being labeled as a migrant, or transitions taking place in the school system.
In regard to Yuval-Davis’s (2006) level of identifications and emotional attachments, the theme of
identity politics arises repeatedly. In many articles the discussion on the politics of belonging is inter-
twined with questions of identity, whether ‘‘group identity’’ or ‘‘politics of identity’’ (e.g. Milton and
Marx, 2014). However, some authors in the data particularly emphasize the distinction between the
politics of belonging and the politics of identity. As Gerharz (2014: 554) notes, the concept of belonging
‘avoids the ‘fixations’ that the concept of identity necessarily implies’’ in research on the political
dimensions of inclusion and exclusion. Indeed, theoretical discussions on identity politics have a history
and thus include a certain kind of emancipatory emphasis on, for example, racial, gender, sexual, class,
and dis/ability identities. The politics of belonging instead leads to scrutiny of affective dimensions in
the experiences and practices of belonging – and in the political attempts related to them.
Similarly to the idea of politics, emotionality is a common and penetrating dimension of the different
notions of belonging: affective dimensions of belonging characterize all identified topoi of the study.
Although the data includes articles that discuss emotional attachments and the affective sense of belong-
ing, their role in the politics of belonging is surprisingly seldom explicitly analyzed. However, despite
the distinction that Yuval-Davis (2006: 197-198) makes between belonging as a psychologically
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approached emotional attachment and political belonging, it seems that Antonsich (2010) is right in
claiming that subjective experiences of belonging or not belonging are intrinsically entwined and shaped
by political belonging.’’ Indeed, it seems impossible to separate emotional attachments, psychological
belonging, and politics of belonging, for example when transnational migration brings out the ambi-
guities of belonging that are explored ‘‘both in terms of personal relatedness and national belonging’
(Killias, 2014: 885) or when belonging is seen as ‘‘a fundamental issue in the relations between the
nation and the homosexual subject’ (Kulpa, 2014: 784).
Identifying the five topoi of conceptualizing belonging highlights the centrality of race, ethnicity, and
nationality in the contemporary research on belonging: a great majority of the articles focus on migration
and immigration, ethnic or racial relations, and differences faced by people in their everyday life. In
addition, the studies foreground simultaneous belonging to a minority and a nation and emphasize the
processes of negotiation in the recognition of belonging. The analysis brings to the fore groups that could
be described as ‘‘vulnerable,’’ and in subordinate positions in society. In addition to members of
marginalized ethnic or racial groups, the articles focus on immigrants and indigenous peoples. Partic-
ularly immigrants in the United States and Europe are discussed. African-Americans are the most
frequently studied group in the United States, while European research concentrates on British society.
In Australia, special attention is given to the aboriginal people, while the studies on Asia and Africa tend
to focus on national minorities or intracontinental migration. This corresponds with Michael Skey’s
(2011) observation that recent research on belonging has most often been examined in relation to
marginal groups rather than those who form a dominant group in a nation. Several scholars have,
however, focused on analyzing contemporary forms of national identification and the sense of belonging
of majorities (e.g. Hage, 1998; Savage et al., 2005; Skey, 2011, 2014).
The research on belonging in the data does not, however, foreground only nationality, ethnicity, and
race, but focuses also on the youth, children, and elderly people. These three age groups form a
considerable proportion of the people whose belonging is investigated in the studies. These age groups
may not form minorities, but they can be considered ‘‘vulnerable’’ in terms of the distribution of power
in society. Furthermore, the research often focuses on children, youth, and elderly people with special
needs, such as adolescents with behavior problems or immigrant children. Other ‘‘vulnerable’’ groups
scrutinized were people with mental health problems, or LGBT people. Often, for example in the studies
that explored African-American youth with learning difficulties or Indonesian domestics abused by their
masters in Malaysia, the different categories of ‘‘vulnerability’’ overlap.
The focus on vulnerable groups emphasizes a crucial dimension of the concept of belonging: belong-
ing presupposes access, as Anthias (2002, 2009) notes. It is possible to identify oneself with a particular
group, but in order to belong, the question is whether the person can belong or not. Minorities and
marginalized and oppressed people are often confronted with explicit and implicit inequalities, discrim-
ination, and exclusion caused by limited or blocked access to belonging. The struggle to belong, and
sometimes also a sense and a condition of non-belonging (cf. Anthias, 2006; Christensen, 2009), are
important points of view in dealing with vulnerable groups.
The theoretical frameworks of the studies in the data vary greatly. However, the majority of the
studies adopt a general constructionist standpoint, approaching belonging as a social phenomenon.
The relational character of belonging and the constructed nature of identity are commonly empha-
sized. The studies that discuss belonging in critical, postcolonial, or feminist paradigms often take an
anti-racist, emancipatory stance, while the studies that discuss individual sense of belonging, belong-
ing of children and the youth, or issues of education and learning, commonly resort to psychological
frameworks. Recurring references are made to some individual theorists’ work, most notably that of
Yuval-Davis (2004, 2006, 2011).
Most of the studies are based on empirical investigation: belonging is explored with a wide range of
qualitative and quantitative methods, and the concept is operationalized in various ways to meet the
demands of diverse sets of data. As a concept, however, belonging remains ambiguous and flexible. This
becomes evident particularly when belonging is measured in quantitative research. Although the concept
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itself is often defined in quantitative studies in order to enable measuring, the results of the studies
commonly provide rough categorization, models, or patterns rather than refined understandings of how
and through what kinds of means people seek to belong.
Five topoi discussed in contemporary research on belonging were identified: spatiality, intersectionality,
multiplicity, materiality, and non-belonging. The timely topoi are closely related to the contemporary
phenomena of migration, transnationality, interculturality, and globalization. Rethinking belonging in
the context of increased levels of mobility has led researchers to discuss various forms of multiple
belonging, such as multicultural, diasporic, and trans-local belonging, and to investigate problematic
issues such as discrimination, inequality, and tensions between individuals and communities that the
negotiation on belonging may include.
The success of various identity political movements of the past decades has influenced the popularity
of investigating racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, or disability identities and belonging to minorities. In
general, both individualist identity political projects and ‘‘politics of difference’’ (Hall, 1992: 279–280)
have become more visible and openly promoted in today’s societies. The scholarly interest in belonging
follows these social changes. It seems that the question of belonging has emerged in research for at least
two reasons. First, the emphasis of belonging, along with the interests in identity and indigenousness, is
part of ‘‘the return of the local,’’ as has been suggested by Geschiere (2009). Although globalization is
emphasized, people foster their identities increasingly in ways that are deeply rooted in the local.
People’s attempts to establish a primordial right to belong are, however, often politically employed in
order to exclude others. This view brings us to the second reason: questions of belonging entail practical
and political implications, and in the contemporary world acts of inclusion and exclusion, identification,
and struggles over identity have become ever more topical. The concept itself has become politicized: it
is used to tackle questions of exclusion, discrimination, and inequality.
As a concept, belonging is closely linked to the recent critically oriented conceptual and theoretical
discussions on the concept of identity (see e.g. Anthias, 2002, 2009; Probyn, 1996). In these discussions,
too, belonging is approached as multiple, shifting, simultaneous, temporary (or even momentary),
spatial, and located in – or oriented toward – multiple locations. Furthermore, belonging is also
approached as scalar and temporary: one can (feel to) belong to certain groups, to a certain degree, for
a moment. However, several scholars dealing with identities and identification have approached the
concept of identity in a similar manner (see e.g. Hall, 1990, 1992, 2000; Woodward, 1997). If the
concept of identity is already commonly understood as something that people ‘‘seek, construct, and
negotiate,’’ and as relational instead of a stable or coherent entity every individual ‘‘has’’ (Brubaker and
Cooper, 2000: 2), do we actually need the concept of belonging?
In scholarly discussions, identity and identification refer to a state where subjects or groups recognize
the existence of certain identities as a part of people’s subjectivity – whether as a static, ‘‘achieved’’ state
or a flexible, ongoing process of becoming. The poststructural and critical theories in particular have
broadened the discussion on identities by highlighting identification as an ongoing process rather than
identity as a stable result of finite processes. Human relations, attachments to other people, and cultural
phenomena are, however, profoundly nuanced, and the level of attachment varies and transforms. People
may feel that they belong to something without necessarily describing this feeling as an identification or
identity. The concept of belonging opens new perspectives to the discussion on people’s social relations
and their social and cultural practices that embrace, for example, emotions and affects. The strength of
the concept of belonging lies in the fact that it enables the inclusion of subjective, social, and societal
dimensions in the study (May, 2011): belonging as a concept is ‘‘person-centered’’ (May, 2011: 364), yet
it refers not only to a private feeling, but comprises both emotions and external relations. It also includes
a political aspect and points to the norms, restrictions, and regulations that enable or hinder belonging.
The prevalence of studies and debates on migration points to this in particular.
La¨hdesma¨ki et al.: Fluidity and flexibility of ‘‘belonging’’: Uses of the concept in contemporary research 241
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Yet, while in-depth investigations of the processes of belonging often produce rich and grounded
analyses of human experiences embedded in the material world, meta-level generalizations and oper-
ationalizations of the concept in empirical research, particularly in broad quantitative studies, may lead
to rather banal and self-evident results. Thus, while it is necessary to map the multiple meanings
of belonging and discuss the basis of its conceptualizations in different research contexts, the strength
of belonging as an academic concept lies exactly in its flexibility and adaptability. Due to its fluid
nature, belonging helps us explore the shifting character of borders and frontiers (Gerharz, 2014). The
complexity of the concept is not accidental but necessary, even to the extent that ‘‘multiple belonging is
constitutive of identity’’ (Fridlund, 2014: 273; original emphasis). Therefore, ‘‘belonging’’ cannot be
defined as a static concept that has similar meanings and the same explanatory power in different
empirical and theoretical contexts. However, the analysis brought out certain dimensions of the concept
that penetrate its meanings and uses regardless of the subject area or approach of the study. Belonging,
therefore, comprises of situational relationships with other people and social and cultural practices
stemming from these relationships, which are fundamentally political and include emotional and/or
affective orientations. Belonging is best understood as an entanglement of multiple and intersecting,
affective and material, spatially experienced and socio-politically conditioned relations that are context-
specific and thus require contextualized definitions. The analytical power of belonging lies in the
multiplicity of the dimensions it can potentially cover. However, this flexibility calls for extreme care-
fulness and clarity in its situated applications.
Based on the analysis of the contemporary (2014) articles, we have listed nine suggestions for future
studies on ‘‘belonging.’’
1. Although belonging is a useful concept, it requires a clearer definition in relation to other parallel
concepts and a critical discussion on its operationalization in research. The studies seldom
discuss the distinction between the concepts of identity and belonging, although this kind of
theorization has been applied, for example by Antonsich (2010) and Anthias (2013); nor do they
argue the interrelatedness of the concepts, as has been suggested, for example, by Guibernau
2. Studies dealing with cultural products as means and manifestations of belonging are scarce in the
2014 data. While the request by Yuval-Davis (2006) to study belonging on the levels of social
locations, identifications and emotional attachments, and ethical and political values is often
responded to in the studies, a more rigorous theoretical and empirical engagement with socio-
cultural frameworks is called for. Cultural practices and phenomena, as discussed, for example,
by Burrell (2006) and Frontier (2000), should be brought to the focus of research on belonging far
more rigorously.
3. What is almost entirely missing from discussions concerning the material aspects of belonging in
the data is the role of art works and artists in the negotiations of belonging. While a small number
of studies included art praxis in their exploration of belonging, none dealt with representations of
belonging in works of art, literature, films, or plays – perhaps also due to the selected database
(ASE). There remains a great number of venues for research that seeks to understand how art can
be used to address the questions of belonging.
4. Although the majority of the analyzed articles focus on marginal or vulnerable groups, belonging
is mostly understood as a positive phenomenon. The negative aspects that belonging might
involve are seldom discussed. Including those might, however, help to question a certain norma-
tiveness of belonging as a desirable end-destination and non-belonging as inherently negative.
5. The concept of belonging is mostly used in investigations of contemporary issues, although the
idea of belonging might well offer new approaches to investigating the historical relationality of
6. While the studies in the data often deal with multiply oppressed people or groups, intersection-
ality as a theoretical framework is rarely discussed further. Applying a discussion on
242 Acta Sociologica 59(3)
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intersectionality could prove fruitful in analyzing various intersecting experiences, statuses, and
recognitions of belonging.
7. Studies on belonging would benefit from a further analysis of the interdependence between
emotions and politics (Guibernau, 2013), that is, the combination of various levels of research.
8. The flexibility, fluidity, and adaptability of the concept of belonging call for further longitudinal
study of its transformation and development as a scholarly concept.
9. The scholarly interest in investigating discrimination, inequality, and tensions between individ-
uals and communities is remarkable. However, the studies are rarely based on action research or
in any other way explicitly aim to develop non-discriminative structures and practices. By
denouncing discriminative structures, scholars should actively seek to impact societal discus-
sions and communal practices on belonging and non-belonging.
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of
this article: this work was supported by the Kone Foundation, the Academy of Finland under Grants SA274295
(EUCHE), SA2100019101 (POPULISM), SA275111, and SA267159 (FEENIKS), and the European Research
Council under Grant 636177 (EUROHERIT).
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Author biographies
Tuuli La
¨ki, PhD, DSocSci, is an Academy Research Fellow at the Department of Art and
Culture Studies, University of Jyva¨skyla¨, Finland. Her major research interests include identity and
heritage politics, urban space, and discursive meaning-making processes in contemporary culture. Her
current research projects EUCHE (the Academy of Finland) and EUROHERIT (the European Research
Council) explore the construction of a European cultural heritage and identity.
Tuija Saresma, PhD, works as Senior Researcher at the Department of Art and Culture Studies,
University of Jyva¨skyla¨, Finland, in the research project ‘‘Populism as movement and rhetoric,’’ funded
by the Academy of Finland. She is the principal investigator of research projects ‘‘Idealization of
everyday, home, and nation in the Finnish blogosphere’’ (funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation),
and ‘‘Arts of belonging: Affectivity and materiality of homing’’ (Kone Foundation). Her research
interests include the representations and performativity of gender in social media, intersectionality, and
the ethics and politics of writing.
Kaisa Hiltunen, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Art and Culture Studies,
University of Jyva¨skyla¨, Finland. Her research interests include film, particularly the material and
affective aspects of film experience, film theory and philosophy, and contemporary Finnish cinema.
Saara Ja
¨ntti, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Languages, University of Jyva¨s-
kyla¨, Finland. Her research focuses on issues of space, particularly home-spaces, mental health, and the
cultural history of psychiatry. Her research project with Finnish mental health care service users, a drama
project on ‘‘home,’’ is funded by the Academy of Finland. She is also a researcher in the project
‘Idealization of everyday, home, and nation in the Finnish blogosphere’’ (the Finnish Cultural
Nina Sa
¨skilahti, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Art and Culture Studies,
University of Jyva¨skyla¨, Finland, and a researcher in the research project ‘‘Art and culture in the mental
and material reconstruction process following the Lapland War,’’ funded by the Academy of Finland.
Her research focuses on time and temporality, mnemonic practices, and memory cultures.
Antti Vallius, PhD, is a non-fiction writer and Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Art and
Culture Studies, University of Jyva¨skyla¨, Finland. He is interested in landscape imageries and mental
images of the environment.
Kaisa Ahvenja
¨rvi, MA, is a Lecturer at the Department of Art and Culture Studies, University of
Jyva¨skyla¨, Finland. She is currently working on her PhD thesis ‘‘The representations of ethnicity and
gender in the contemporary Sa´mi poetry.’’
La¨hdesma¨ki et al.: Fluidity and flexibility of ‘‘belonging’’: Uses of the concept in contemporary research 247
at Jyvaskyla University on December 12, 2016asj.sagepub.comDownloaded from
... Both the social science and business literature and national census research point to significant response problems for survey respondents when asked to self-report their ethnicity (Williams & Husk, 2013;Beresnevičiūtė, 2005;Lähdesmäki et al., 2016). This article follows up on the emerging literature addressing the above topic (Burton et al., 2010.) ...
... This study follows the call for further research on respondents' reactions to demographic questions such as self-identified ethnicity and belonging in quantitative sociological research (Beresnevičiūtė 2005; Burton et al., 2010; Lähdesmäki et al., 2016). By exploring the issues of salience and sensitivity in responding to surveys about ethnicity/ethnic groups, we offer a new contribution to sociological studies. ...
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... Many of these attempts emerged from critical approaches that have discussed the concept of identity, trying to overcome the ambiguous definitions of the term identity and the overall overgeneralised application of it as a 'catch-all concept' (Brubaker and Cooper 2000;Anthias 2002Anthias , 2008Krzyzanowski and Jones 2011). Although there is a considerable body of literature on belonging, however, several researchers have raised concerns that much of that literature treats this notion as a self-explanatory concept and as a synonym of identity or citizenship (Antonsich 2010;Lähdesmäki et al. 2016;Errichiello 2018). Such concerns encouraged scholars (Antonsich 2010;May 2011;Anthias 2009) to call for more clarification on the concept of belonging. ...
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Utilising semi-structured interviews, this study aims to explore how second-generation Arab migrants perceive and negotiate their belonging in Qatar. It is argued that second-generation Arab migrants construct their belonging to Qatar beyond the legal definition (Citizen/resident) imposed on them as temporary migrants. However, the same legal definition is key to understand how their sense of belonging to Qatar is perceived and negotiated. Participants’ reflections on their sense of belonging were analyzed based on two analytical levels: the place-belonging level, and the politics of belonging level. Three general strategies for negotiating the gap between the sense of place-belonging and being exposed to the boundaries of belonging in the Qatari context were identified. The study concludes that while second-generation Arab migrants construct their positions on the spectrum of belonging – unbelonging beyond the legal status imposed on them, such status is still the rigid criteria on which inclusion and exclusion are based.
... Antonsich (2010) suggests that belonging should be understood in two ways: "place-belongingness" is a personal feeling of being at home whilst "politics of belonging" considers processes of socio-spatial inclusion and exclusion. Lähdesmäki et al. (2016) suggest five main ways in which belonging is framed: spatiality, intersectionality, multiplicity, materiality and non-belonging. In short, the nuances of diaspora, home, identity and belonging amongst migrants are diverse and complex, and vary according to people, societies, cultures and spatial variables. ...
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... Central to the politics of belonging is the making of citizenships and identities (Yuval-Davis et al., 2006). The politics of belonging involves contestations on discourses around which people construct and organise boundaries of a collectivity of where one belongs Nyamnjoh, 1998, 2000;Lähdesmäki et al. 2016). It is 'a discursive resource that constructs, claims, justifies, or resists forms of socio-spatial inclusion/exclusion' (Antonsich, 2010: 645). ...
The Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP) of 2000 redistributed land previously owned by White farmers to the majority Black Zimbabweans. In understanding the dynamics of land ownership, various studies have been conducted, and these highlight autochthonous claims to land based on attachment to graves and ancestral sites and contestations around them. However, non-ancestral claims to belonging have received limited attention. This article examines tensions between two groups of A1 villagised farms using empirical qualitative data from a case study in Bubi District. The article presents new forms of claims and contestations to autochthony and belonging in fast-track farms.
... The feelings of security are often related with the sense of belonging (Lähdesmäki et al., 2016), and therefore are often mentioned as a determinant for their selection. Most respondents reported a sense of security and safety when describing their emotional experience with their studio. ...
Creativity is not defined by space, place or time. However, artists need to find the right creative spaces and environments to work within. This process of selection and adaptation has changed within the last decade. It is now also determined by socio-economic and cultural influences, including the gig economy and a new era of career precarity. This thesis takes a new approach to understanding constant reshaping of urban space and its affects on artists. I will be examining the process of studio selection within formal and informal creative quarters in London and Southampton, by considering the affect emotion and feeling that resonates within artists. There has been a recent abundance of new spaces that showcase city arts culture, but how those are experienced and how connected do the artists feel with these formalized spaces, and particularly how does emotion interplays within these factors? Can any space can become a studio by the virtue of an artist choosing it as their workspace? This thesis will show that what constitute a workplace might not be what the studio means for the artists. Both formal and informal spaces exist, which are (de)legitimised by the approaches used by artists to obtain these spaces. Therefore, this thesis also explores the significance of the spaces of exception and exclusive to artists. This thesis also considers the significance of gentrification and activism against the formalisation of artistic spaces, by those who are excluded by these spaces and cannot afford the newly created gentrified property market. Urban regeneration and artists have been researched through manifold perspectives, most recently due to gentrification (Lees, 2000, Zukin and Braslow, 2011, Deutsche, 1998). Artists play a role in urban regeneration either by being the pioneers of run-down spaces (Ley, 2003), or by playing in a central role in culture-led and arts-led regeneration schemes (Warwick, 2006). Despite the artists valuable contribution to society (Belfiore and Bennett, 2007) gentrification and the increasing rents are restricting either artists life or their artistic activity in the city centres. The following case-studies will also illustrate how artists are existing in contrasting cities of London and Southampton. I will re-interpret the connection of artists with certain locations, whilst exploring the role of affect and emotion experienced by the artists. This emotional relationship, as my work will show, stems from the location of the studio itself, as the physical studio space, its materiality and is informed by the artists past and present. The selection of two distinct cities, both in size and cultural landscape I will explore how affect interplays with the similar and contrasting (in)visible materialities subjacent to each urban space, as the materiality of the studio. This will also offer new insights of the role of artists in small cities. Emotion and affect are often disregarded when analysing the clustering of artists in certain locations, as such the present thesis intends to fill the existing research gap in this field. More than analysing the urban fabric and amenities in the area, the research will look into the different individual preferences displayed and contextualising the different artists background. This interpretation will undertake different methods, as a semi-structured in-depth interviews, participant observation and cartographic analysis. This thesis shows that artists base their studio selections based on their life paths, individual needs and personal attachments over the urban characteristics and various amenities that cities may offer.
This thesis investigates how contemporary diasporas evolve, how diasporization takes place under the conditions of late modernity, and how language features in this process. By diasporization, I refer to the process(es) in which diasporic groups emerge and individuals start to engage in certain diasporic practices, i.e., social practices that are associated with their ethnic or national origin or with their imagined homeland, or with boundary management in the host-land. The research was an ethnographically informed critical sociolinguistic study of first-generation Hungarians in Catalonia that drew on collaborative methodologies in order to include the emic perspectives of the participants. To capture these perspectives, the research combined many data generating techniques, such as ethnographic field notes, biographical interviews, online focus groups, collection of material evidence, and collaborative interpretation with the key participants in the research.
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During the global Covid-19 pandemic, the practice of extensively washing one’s hands with soap and water became ubiquitous worldwide. In this contribution, I look at how cultural references to soap have been productive in producing social identities in South Africa. By utilizing Nira Yuval-Davis’s (2006) distinction between belonging and the politics of belonging, I trace how stories and narratives featuring soap that circulate in the South African cultural archive refer to specific cultural templates or social imaginaries. These stories and narratives perform different functions: they signify categories of social belonging, enable social subjects to identify with specific subject locations, and are utilized to both confirm and patrol the borders of these categories of belonging in acts that may be described as the “politics of belonging.”
This paper focuses on the residential location choices made by rural-residing couples with diverse residential biographies at union formation. We explore how this decision-making process is navigated and negotiated as a newly formed household. The study is informed by prior research that has aided our understanding of the relational nature of moving and staying processes, and the integral role of life course transitions in shaping residential decisions. We use data from the wider STAYin(g)Rural project, including a large household survey and in-depth interviews with individuals living in rural Northern Ireland (specifically, the case study site of the Clogher Valley, County Tyrone) who have undergone union formation, and decided to either move to, or stay within, the area. We find that, despite considerable heterogeneity within and between couples in their residential biographies, several common, often inter-related, themes dominated their rural residential location choices. Underpinning much of the desire to live and stay in the rural was a strong sense of belonging and attachment to the area, with a complex interplay of economic, environmental, geographical, and social factors acting to enable staying. Clear generational differences in the decision-making process emphasise the importance of exploring distinctions between and across life course stages in studies that aim to understand the process of (rural) staying.
This contribution investigates the concept “community” as a previously underexplored dimension of multiple religious belonging (MRB). A review of the MRB approach to multireligiosity reveals there has been paid relatively little attention to community influence and fluid, non-dualistic styles of religious belonging. We argue that these styles of multiple belonging cannot be accounted for by conventional understandings of MRB that assume a “World Religions Paradigm.” After reviewing two approaches to this problem, the article explores a rhizomatic approach to MRB and religious communities. To illustrate this approach, a brief review of several Dutch multireligious communities is presented.
‘Identity, Belonging and Migration: Beyond Constructing ‘Others’’, written by Paul Jones and Michael Krzyanowksi, addresses similar themes to the chapter that comes before it by seeking to discourage the uncritical application of the concept of identity, which the authors argue is not always helpful when assessing the relationship of migrants to collectives.
The writer and broadcaster Michael Ignatieff tells this story about the wartorn former Yugoslavia in 1993: … it’s four in the morning. I’m in the command post of the local Serbian militia, in an abandoned farm house, 250 metres from the Croatian front line … not Bosnia but the war-zones of central Croatia. The world is no longer watching, but every night Serb and Croat militias exchange small arms fire and the occasional bazooka round. This is a village war. Everyone knows everyone else: they all went to school together; before the war, some of them worked in the same garage; they dated the same girls. Every night, they call each other up on the CB radio and exchange insults – by name. They go back trying to kill each other. I’m talking to the Serbian soldiers – tired, middle-aged reservists, who’d much rather be at home in bed. I’m trying to figure out why neighbours should start killing each other. So I say I can’t tell Serbs and Croats apart. ‘What makes you think you’re so different?’ The man I’m talking to takes a cigarette pack out of his khaki jacket. ‘See this? These are Serbian cigarettes. Over there they smoke Croatian cigarettes.’ ‘But they’re both cigarettes, right?’ ‘You foreigners don’t understand anything’, he shrugs and begins cleaning his Zastovo machine pistol. But the question I’ve asked bothers him, so a couple of minutes later, he tosses the weapon on the bunk between us and says, ‘Look, here’s how it is. Those Croats, they think they’re better than us. They think they’re fancy Europeans and everything. I’ll tell you something. We’re all just Balkan rubbish.’ (Ignatieff, 1994, pp. 1–2) This is a story about war and conflict set against a background of social and political upheaval. It is also a story about identities. This scenario presents different identities dependent on two separate national positions, those of Serbs and Croats, which are picked out here as two distinctly 430identifiable peoples to whom the men involved see themselves as belonging. These identities are given meaning through the language and symbolic systems through which they are represented. © 2019 selection and editorial matter, Sheila Watson, Amy Jane Barnes and Katy Bunning; individual chapters, the contributors.
In the short text sequence quoted above, a young Turkish woman points to problems often faced by migrants nowadays in an extremely well articulated and moving way: where do we belong? Which identity/ies do we all have? Who am I?
In this groundbreaking book, Nira Yuval-Davis provides a cutting-edge investigation of the challenging debates around belonging and the politics of belonging. Alongside the hegemonic forms of citizenship and nationalism which have tended to dominate our recent political and social history, the author examines alternative contemporary political projects of belonging constructed around the notions of religion, cosmopolitanism, and the feminist ‘ethics of care’. The book also explores the effects of globalization, mass migration, the rise of both fundamentalist and human rights movements on such politics of belonging, as well as some of its racialized and gendered dimensions. A special space is given to the various feminist political movements that have been engaged as part of or in resistance to the political projects of belonging.
Due to the lack of theoretical rigour and precision that so often accompanies its use, the concept of ‘identity’ is not necessarily the best way in which to conceptualize an individual's relation to a collective. In fact, the casual application of this highly elastic yet undifferentiated concept to empirical research on migration has meant that the potential of ‘identity’ to operate as an overarching explanatory framework is highly problematic, often serving to hide more than it reveals. We would like to suggest that the notion of ‘belonging’ is central not only to the sustained critique of the concept of identity, but also for developing a coherent and context-sensitive theoretical model that supports empirical social scientific research in this area. However, and even given these concerns, we are not calling for the abandonment of the concept of identity, but rather for a ‘conceptual unpacking’, which would allow the multiple, highly complex processes associated with identity construction to be revealed rather than – as is often the case – concealed. Of course, ‘belonging’ is not a novel response to the analytical shortcomings of the concept of identity; it has a long history in both political and social theory. But the re-emergence of the term in the social scientific literature (for example, Probyn 1996; Fortier 2000; Sicakkan and Lithman 2005) can be explained by the fact that the concept provides social scientists the potential to capture something of the complexity and multiplicity in a way that arguably ‘identity’ does not.
The title of the recent White Paper prepared by the immigration team of David Blunkett, the current Home Secretary of the British Labor government, is “Secure Border, Safe Haven” (January 2002). In the introduction to the White Paper, Blunkett explains the logic of the title. He sees “a clear, workable” and especially “robust nationality and asylum system” (pointing out that people crossing the Channel Tunnel in container lorries demonstrate how difficult it is to reach the UK) as a precondition of “our need to be secure within our sense of belonging and identity” (Foreword to White Paper). Blunkett is not alone. John Crowley actually defines the arena of the politics of belonging as the “‘dirty work’ of boundary maintenance (1999: 30).” What I want to do in this chapter is to discuss questions relating to the politics of belonging and the relationship between them and constructions of boundaries and borders. After discussing the issues involved on a general level, I shall relate them specifically to the debate taking place these days in Britain on the construction of the national collectivity and the relationship between this and the notion of “secure borders.” Since he became UK Home Secretary, David Blunkett has been engaged in finding ways of establishing a “sense of belonging” to the British national collectivity as a precondition for gaining formal British citizenship. © Cambridge University Press 2004 and